Thursday, June 4, 2009

Philip Clayton on the Academic Job Hunt

Prof. Philip Clayton tells it like it is

Professor Clayton, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at CGU and Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, kindly joined our group to answer some tough questions about the job market for academics.

To learn more about Professor Clayton, be sure to check out his website, Clayton's Emergings.

Would you tell us a little about yourself?

In college, I dropped out, traveled around Europe for a while, did my first Master's, worked for a world hunger organization. I had an idea for my dissertation and wrote it out - I had a 200 page dissertation in hand when I came back to Yale.

They looked at it and said, "Your topic's no good."

"But I have 200 pages!" I said. I call that my "Black Monday."

I've been interdisciplinary from the beginning. I'm in the Philosophy Department at CGU, And the Religion and Philosophy Department at CST.

Before I begin my talk, let me mention this: The days of casting a wide net over the job market and picking the best job for you are over. You have to be specific and you have to be prepared.

* * * * *

“The academic job market is very rough. I advocate that you get very specific about the kind of job you want and create a paper trail for that kind of job.”

- Prof. Clayton, giving the main thesis of his talk

* * * * *

What kind of paper trail do you have in mind?

A portfolio on paper that shows you're more qualified than the other candidates. You create that paper trail with your CV.

Your CV should include:
  • Areas of specialization
  • Areas of competence
  • Publications
  • Papers
  • Teaching experience
  • Community organization or involvement
Those six phrases at the top are really crucial. All of the headings should show the kind of job you're interested in, to show you're the ideal candidate for that kind of job.

Then, you substantiate what you've said through transcripts, letters of rec, etc.

* * * * *

“Whatever you claim you're the best at - you substantiate that through your CV, transcripts, and letters of rec.”

- Prof. Clayton, on making an ideal application

* * * * *

The person who looks on paper to be the best person for the job is going to get the interview.

How competitive is it? Can you give an example?

I was recently on a hiring committee. We received 85 applications and chose 8 to talk to at AAR (Religion's national conference). Of those 8, we brought 2 to campus.


That's why tailoring your CV to a specific job is so important. It's all about fantasizing your way into the future and creating a paper trail for it.

What if you'd be happy with a multitude of positions?

It's so competitive, you need to take a targeted approach. Find the school you want to apply to, then find out the things they really need covered. What are the courses or areas they really need you to teach?

You can change the order of the items on your resume - the areas of competency, for example - to fit the needs of the school you're applying to.

What is the market looking for? You need to get a sense of the market and mold yourself to it.

Are there templates for a good academic job CV?

First, think of the kind of school you want to teach at. For example, let's say you want to teach at Swarthmore College. You'd go to their website and go look at the CVs of each of the faculty members, especially the junior faculty.

Look at the types of formatting they use, the skills they highlight, the types of journals they've published in.

(for a sample of a Swarthmore faculty profile, see here.)

For someone who has non-academic work experience, but little teaching experience, will this hinder a person's ability to get an academic job?

Yes. Academics can be snotty, its best to downplay nonacademic jobs.

People entering the field can be very idealistic, you can think you're going to turn the academy upside down. But to get a job, you have to play into their categories to get hired.

Look at the journals for your field. What are people getting hired in?

There's a ballpark you need to know in advance. You do want to keep this in mind when you pick your dissertation topic.

* * * * *

“No lover is more intimate than your dissertation topic. If you don't love that topic, its going to be really rough."

- Prof. Clayton, on strategically choosing your dissertation topic

* * * * *
Haha! That analogy is fun to play with over a beer some time.

(Note, for more great dissertation analogies, see the notes for our session with Prof. Lori Anne Ferrell, who likened writing a dissertation to being in love)

To give you an idea of the state out there - NIH funding for the sciences reached 30 billion in 2008. For the humanities - 350 million. We are seriously underfunding the humanities.

Throughout Europe and North America, we're seeing the crash of the humanities.

In a tough market like this, if you want to get in, you plan in advance.

I want to start preparing job applications for my field's national conference, which happens 5 months before I graduate. I don't want to skimp on job apps, but I also need to make finishing my dissertation my priority. How do I have time to do both?

You make time. This is good practice for what happens when have the job - as a professor you will constantly be multitasking. You might as well start now.

That sense of being hung out to dry, the dissertation writing depression, you can overcome that. Say to yourself, "I'm doing one of these other projects in the afternoon." Give yourself time for the dissertation, time for applications, time for other projects.

Your breakdown for a typical day might be 2/3 straight writing for the dissertation, 1/3 for other projects, which could include working on your job application material.

How long should the CV be?

Line by line on your CV, you need to show that you're doing more than the other applicants.

So its really important to put a lot of info on there. At the same time, if it's B.S., they'll see right through it.

The people on the hiring committee want to see pages - no more of that "a resume must be 1 page only" business.

First you pad your CV so that you can get at least 2 pages of paper....If you have a book review published, that's a real line, include that. Then as you get more experience and publications over time, you can drop off the weaker stuff.

I have very limited teaching experience. If I was to get an interview, do I focus on my non-academic work experience or should I focus mainly on my research and conference presentations?

Most definitely not the non-academic work experience. Focus on the conferences and presentations.

There are non-academic positions that could still support your application. For example, if you have community organizing experience, admin experience running a program of any kind.

I own my own business. Is that something I should mention?

Yes! Place that under the Admin Experience heading. Then you tell your letter writers, "Could you mention my business and how it fits?" Then, in your cover letter, "with my extensive experience...I would be able to...fundraising, etc."

A lot of people would see that and go, "Snap! Future Department Chair!"

Spin everything in a way that puts you directly in line with their needs.

What if you want to get more research experience? How do you go about it?

Approach the professor that you're interested in working with. Say, "I'd like to worth with you on your research. I'm really interested in what you do. I have 5 hours a week, I'd like to work with you on your project." You might even offer free services for a semester in exchange for letters of rec.

Once you get in, make yourself indispensable. You may get notes, co-author credit, etc.

You might even offer to run errands, drive for the visiting professors. The students who do the driving get the e-mails, contact information.

Take the initiative, do the networking.

How do I get publications?

Send a note, "I'm willing to do a book review for such-and-such, it's right in my area."

Being a book review editor is a thankless job. They're happy when you come by and offer to help them.

Go to your professors, ask.

Does getting published in popular publications (as opposed to academic journals) count?

That's changing. Popular publications are notable because they are read - less than 10 people read the average academic article.

Remember, online journals also count.

What exactly does "postdoc" mean? Is it something you only do if you can't get a teaching job?

A postdoc is a research position, usually assisting some other professor.

A postdoc is excellent. Hard to get, especially in the humanities. In the sciences though, now that is the way to go! What a great thing to have.

A CV places your most recent activities at the top and moves backwards. Imagine having a postdoc listed first.

Now, this isn't relevant for most people in the humanities. But if you win a 2 year postdoc, you still keep applying for tenure positions. You can always resign from the postdoc, so keep hunting.

Getting a postdoc does not at all look like "Oh, couldn't get a tenure job." Not at all.

Can we talk about adjuncting? It feels like they're just using you, it's slavery.

That classroom experience, it's holy for me. That time of being with your students is yours. You're learning so much during that time you're in the classroom. And each time you do it, you're cutting your hours of prep.

It's way up there from simply TAing.

Adjuncting is important. But if you have that first step and you've taught some classes and you want to stop to finish the dissertation, that's fine. I'm worried about the people with no teaching.

How do you get into adjuncting? I'm not interested in getting a tenure track job.

Get that first class. Once you have that, you're good.

Do you have friends in the department? Find out how it works. Is it only teaching the intro course? Then your task is to show your love of teaching, that you're ready to teach intro, that you have a calling for undergraduate teaching.

Who is the chair? What are her interests? Ask yourself, "How can I convince the chair to let me in?"

You've done a CV that says the thing you love best is teaching Introduction to (Insert). Now bring it to life.

A standard liberal arts teaching load:

1 class a year in your area of specialization
1 intro class a semester
1 2nd year class
+ something vaguely in your area

So if you don't love teaching, you're gonna die...

Remember, on paper - you're thrilled to be teaching that intro course.

What if you're really interested in research?

Then you should look for a research position, or something in industry.

Pure research positions are the hardest to get.

It can be just brutal, just brutal. The total nerd, she's the one who gets the position. She's the most brilliant in her field, she gets the research professorship.

It's all looking so bleak!

I'm here to talk realism with you. This is all true, but at the same time, I want you to know that I love being in this field.

What kind of mistakes do people make in interviews?

Often, they may appear like they're not very menschlich, not very human. For example, I once saw a candidate who only made eye contact with the other men in the room, disregarding the women. Afterwards, one of the women on the committee said, "I wouldn't hire this guy from a dead body."

Another common mistake is during the interview, you sit there and reel off the list of your dissertation chapters ("in the first chapter I argue this....and then I argue that...and in the second chapter I argue this....and then...."). You'll bore them.

What they want to see is a passion for teaching.

We've all heard about people being on the market for 5 years. How long before its time to give up?

We can't control how long it takes. We can only control what we put forward.

Usually, economics determines when you'll stop. You'll need to ask yourself, is it really worth it any longer? The feedback from the people in your life will also give you guidance.

You'll need to ask yourself, "Can I imagine myself happy anywhere else?"

A part of this is living for your dreams. It's like trying out for the Olympics.

Do you have to be willing to go anywhere for a job?


What if you can't leave this area?

Then market yourself for getting your foot in the door as an adjunct at a place nearby. Once you get in, make yourself invaluable.

Run meetings, start a student club and offer to be their advisor, do everything.

Does being an adjunct mean that they tend not to hire you?

Depends on the place. Again, make yourself invaluable, that's your best shot at getting something more.

I'm thinking about getting into grant writing. Would that make me a more attractive hire?

Yes. If you have received any grants, put them on your CV, along with the amount. Did you get a GSC travel grant? Put it down. A CGU Dissertation grant? Definitely put it down.

Are there many schools hiring people who haven't finished yet?

Depends. What do your letters of rec say? This is a hot dissertation, she'll be competitive when she goes on the market, you have a chance now to snap her up. Ask your prof to say, "It is virtually certain that she will finish by... I have seen the draft and she's in her final revision stage."

If you're planning on graduating in May, have the draft in January. My advice, go on the job market one year early so that you can make all your mistakes that year and it doesn't matter.

If you're planning on graduating Fall of '09 - go on the market Fall of '08. Apply, get your letters together.

And then if you land a job, great, you'll make sure you finish that dissertation in time.

After graduation, what if there's a gap where you don't have an academic affiliation? Can you still get published?

Yes. In that case, you list the city where you live.

We really enjoyed having Prof. Clayton visit and hope he comes again to the workshop soon.


  1. Hello Dude,

    You have provided a very good site. Searching for an academic job can be stressful, but several tips on planning and organization can mitigate this feeling and help lead to success.


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